'Fifty Shades' success upends thinking about winter movies

Women drive box-office success of 'Fifty Shades': nearly 70% of weekend moviegoers were female

Valentine's Day movies were once forgettable, midrange affairs, romances that took in decent sums and disappeared as quickly as the contents of a holiday chocolate box.

But by racking up $94 million in domestic ticket sales since it opened Friday, the erotic drama "Fifty Shades of Grey" has turned winter moviegoing on its head.

The modern film business makes its billions primarily by aiming at young males, who are scarfing down splashy comic book fare at an unprecedented pace. But "Fifty Shades," adapted from E.L. James' best-seller, not only has broken records for Valentine's and Presidents Day opening weekends, its totals have challenged spring juggernauts such as "X-Men: Days of Future Past" by successfully appealing to a very different demographic: women over 25.

Nearly 70% of "Fifty Shades" moviegoers through Sunday were female, and 58% of the audience was older than 25. The film has shrewdly targeted the audience that has made one-offs such as "Julie & Julia" and "Eat, Pray, Love" successes — but with a twist, since the film also relies on the sequel mentality reserved for young-adult franchises such as "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games."

"This could be the R-rated equivalent of 'Twilight,'" said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at the audience measurement service Rentrak.

The risque movie, which follows kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his demure love interest, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), tapped into a genre — edgy, R-rated romance — that has been largely dormant since the late 1980s and 1990s when such films as "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" flourished.

Indeed, with James' additional books, and the prospect of future "Fifty Shades" movies, some believe Anastasia Steele could become the face of a new type of franchise, one that's not built around popular teen book adaptations such as "Hunger Games" or superhero blockbusters such as "Iron Man."

"There is an overall dearth of female protagonists and major characters," said Martha Lauzen, San Diego State University film professor. "That creates a hunger to see females in major roles that ['Fifty Shades'] may help sate."

The film is a rarity in the industry not only for its target audience but for the way it came to the screen: It's a project overseen mostly by women. In addition to being based on a book by a woman, the movie was greenlit by Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley, directed by the British filmmaker and photographer Sam Taylor-Johnson from a script by Kelly Marcel. It was the biggest opening weekend for a female director since the 2008 launch of "Twilight," directed by Catherine Hardwicke.

In achieving such strong box-office success, "Fifty Shades" implicitly raises questions about whether many Hollywood assumptions are wrong while also potentially generating a newfound respect for the genre, if not a glut of similar movies.

"I'm sure a lot of movie executives are scouring best-seller lists looking to find the next 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'" Dergarabedian said. "But you walk a very fine line as to whether these types of movies can do well."

Universal already is at work on scripts for the second and third books of the series.

Not everyone is convinced, however, that the film will ignite change in the industry.

"When 'Bridesmaids' came out, everyone started talking about the effect it would have because it was such a huge hit," Lauzen said. "People were saying, 'We are going to see lots of similar films.' That really never materialized."

Stacy L. Smith, a USC Annenberg associate professor, noted while the domestic market is 50% female, only two of the top 100 movies of 2014 were directed by a woman.

"The industry is reluctant to support female storytellers and voices," Smith said. "[But] female filmmakers sell, despite what Hollywood decision makers think."

"Fifty Shades of Grey" became a huge hit after James, a British television executive turned novelist, released it as an e-book in 2011. She wrote two follow-ups and signed on with a major publisher. Now, the books have been translated into 52 languages and have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

After Universal won an aggressive bidding war for the film rights in March 2012, the studio worked to find ways to please book fans while also appealing to a mainstream audience that might be uncomfortable with the racy content.

Though many moviegoers were fans of the book, strong ticket sales were also powered by a carefully crafted marketing plan, timed to a Valentine's Day weekend release.

The marketing blitz included billboards and bus ads that teased moviegoers with the question: "Curious?" Universal recruited singer Beyonce, who mixed her hit song "Crazy in Love" for the film. Trailers featuring the song as early as last summer became among the most viewed videos on Facebook and YouTube.

Word of mouth and marketing paid off. Fandango, the nation's largest movie ticket company, reported hundreds of sold-out showings for "Fifty Shades of Grey" beginning with the first 8 p.m. screenings on Feb. 12 and running through the weekend.

"With unprecedented pre-sales and buzz on social media after the release of the trailer, we knew it was going to be a hot item," Nick Carpou, Universal's president of domestic distribution, said Sunday. "It's been just a great thing to watch."

However, some activists have been vocal in their criticism, saying the film glamorizes a dangerous relationship. At the film's London premiere last week, protesters carried banners that read "50 Shades is Domestic Abuse."

Still, even those who weren't fans of the books came out to see it. Some dragged their dates while others showed up to mock the film.

During a late Saturday afternoon showing at AMC Theater in Santa Monica, certain lines of dialogue meant to be serious led to explosive laughter from the audience. Likewise, the abrupt ending triggered both groans and applause.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't really understand it," said William Overby, 30, after seeing the movie with his fiancee on Saturday. "She wanted to see it. I just tagged along."

Something about seeing "Fifty Shades of Grey" appealed to 73-year-old Roselle Teplitsky.

The Pacific Palisades resident hasn't read E.L. James' novels, but she was curious about the film adaptation after a friend, also in her 70s, told her about the books.

"There's nothing much that excites that woman, so if she can get excited, I figure maybe there must be something there," Teplitsky said, while waiting to see the film at AMC Theater in Santa Monica on Valentine's Day. "I grew up in the '60s when we had [books and movies] about real sex."

Times staff writers Meg James and Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.

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